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Symbolism at Oakland Cemetery: Plants and Flowers

by Richard Waterhouse
On Saturday, Sept. 24, a wide variety of fall plants will be available for purchase at Oakland Cemetery during the fifth annual Fall Plant Sale. A selection of seasonal plants will also be on sale during the Sunday in the Park Victorian festival on Sunday, Oct. 2.
Beyond Historic Oakland Foundation’s Fall Plant Sale, the cemetery’s Victorian gravestones and monuments are filled with symbols of plants, flowers, and trees. Some examples include:
Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 11.26.40 AMTree Stump, Scroll, and Fern
The tree stump — or tree stone — is a symbol of life cut short, as the person buried died before his or her prime of life. Therefore, it is a symbol of premature death. The tree stump can also be a symbol of the knowledge of good and evil.
Ferns convey frankness, humility, and sincerity. A fern leaf conveys victory over death. A marker with two fern leaves conveys the struggle between creation and destruction.
A scroll is the symbol of the angel Metatron, who is the king of angels and is also known as the Angel of Death. It is also symbolizes destiny, knowledge, learning, passing of time, and wisdom.
Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 11.31.57 AMFinger of God with Morning Glories, Madonna or Easter Lilies, and a Rose
The finger coming down from heaven conveys God coming down for the deceased person’s soul. The sleeve is made of 11 morning glories, which represent resurrection since these flowers close at night and open in the day. Eleven is connected to the idea of being saved by the 11th hour. The soul of the person buried here will be saved at the last minute and will have eternal life. The Madonna or Easter lily conveys innocence, purity, and unity. The rose is a symbol of love, fertility, and longevity. Notice that there are three types of flowers represented on this marker, which alludes to the Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.)
Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 11.33.56 AMHand of God and Rose
The hand on the book conveys God and the open book is the symbol of the deceased knowing the divine wisdom that he or she will have eternal life. Also, the book refers to the idea that someone has written down on the left side page the good deeds of the deceased so he or she can indeed have eternal life. The rose conveys love and is usually seen on a young woman’s grave, but not always. Notice that there is a rose in full bloom and a rose bud, which convey two phases of life: birth and maturity. The rose has three leaves on each side which, conveys the Father, Son and Holy Ghost. Above, the mantle with tassels symbolizes death.
Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 11.38.04 AMPassion Flower
The passion flower on the Kiser mausoleum is seen as a symbol of Christ’s scourging, crowning with thorns. and crucifixion, and it symbolizes resurrection.
Note this on this marker are three passion flowers, representing the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Because it clings to and climbs all surfaces, ivy — seen among the sunflowers —conveys attachment, friendship, and affection. Its perennial greenness suggests immortality and fidelity, and its three-pointed leaves stand for the trinity, similar to the three passion flowers.
Screen Shot 2016-09-01 at 11.40.11 AMIvy
The Sullivan monument in Oakland Cemetery’s Original Six Acres is near the cemetery’s main gate and is laden with religious symbolism.
The crown and cross motif represents Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection to become king (mortality versus immortality). The lily conveys purity and innocence. The inscription “IHS” denotes the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Greek.
The acanthus leaf is an ornamental motif in classical architecture, and conveys heavenly gardens, the fine arts, artifice, and persistence. Drapery represents mourning and death.  Also, in Victorian Atlanta homes, heavy draperies with tasseled chords reflected worldly success and this was transferred over to the ornate tassels on the monument.
Ivy conveys fidelity and eternal friendship, and on the backside of the monument are daisies which convey the Virgin Mary because like a mother’s love, daisies can grow anywhere and relates to love and innocence.
IMG_1728Flowers
The Porter monument marks the graves of two children, Annie Lowry Porter (d. 1874) and Fannie Lowry Porter (d.1879), the child-sized caskets indicative of their age.
Flower symbols are prevalent in Oakland Cemetery and when found on a young person’s grave symbolize life plucked in its bloom.
Rarely seen in Victorian cemeteries, two hummingbirds hover on the other side of the flower basket. Their number, two, conveys strength in togetherness, and the hummingbird itself, a seeker of nectar, reminds the living to savor the moment, as does the apparent stillness of its beating wings, which seem to stop time.
Plan to come to Oakland Cemetery’s Fall Plant Sale and be sure to take note of the symbols surrounding you. The sale will be held at the Beaumont Allen Greenhouse, and prices start at $1. For more details, click here.
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Richard Waterhouse has led tours of Oakland Cemetery since 1989. In 2000, he designed an Oakland “ramble” that spotlighted symbols and 2006, he founded Waterhouse Symbolism to research and document gravestone symbols internationally. Richard sends out a monthly e-newsletter on cemetery symbols throughout the world. If you want to subscribe, send him an email at rwsymbolism@gmail.com. Richard currently serves as Manager of Leadership Giving for Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta.

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